The fading culture of Damaraland2

Before leaving Etosha and starting on our long drive across northern Namibia to the Skeleton Coast we bought a fresh supply of bottled water for ourselves and filled our empties with well water from the camp.

Later that morning a group of young boys appeared. Trudging along the road in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by seemingly endless savannah, they were headed for some distant village. Odie pulled the van over and we held out the bottles of well water. In Canada a 12-year-old boy offered a bottle of water might well keep on walking but these kids were ecstatic. They smiled, laughed, and did a little dance as they held the prize over their heads. In the parched interior of northern Namibia clean water is a rare and precious gift.

Our route south from Etosha leads into northern Damaraland and skirts the northern wilderness of Kaokoland. It begins in sparsely populated rolling savannah where the annual rainfall is sufficient for subsistence farming and the grazing of a few hardy cattle and goats. Most of the land is parcelled out into huge private ranches, but except for the miles of fences and the occasional distant cluster of farm buildings the country is empty. Villages become fewer and smaller, and the circular thatched rondavels of the north give way to occasional shacks cobbled together from tin and scrap wood.

In pre-colonial time, before they were displaced by European settlers, Herero farmers and Himba herders occupied this region. And before the Herero and Himba laid claim to the land, Damaraland and Kaokoland were part of a vast wilderness that belonged to the animals and the Bushmen. For thousands of years these remarkable people, known also as San, roamed the area in small family groups of hunter-gatherers, surviving in a hostile land with virtually no surface water. Today most of these people, the Herero, the Himba, and the San, have been absorbed into the margins of Namibian society. A few still cling to their traditions but the vast majority belongs to a disadvantaged underclass struggling to make the transition from their semi-nomadic lifestyle to an urban economy.

At Otjo, a small ranching town about 100 km south of Etosha, we stopped to buy provisions from the well-stocked local market. It was midday and blisteringly hot but among the shoppers were several Herero women dressed in voluminous long-sleeved Victorian gowns stuffed with multiple ankle-length petticoats. Outside in the town square a group of Himba women, bare-breasted and wearing little more than goatskin mini-skirts and some metal and shell jewelry, had set up a craft stall. Looking at them now it's hard to believe that the Herero and Himba were once part of the same culture – both Bantu-speaking people who migrated out of east Africa and displaced the San a few centuries earlier.

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